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Nothing to spit at
on August 28, 2005
Imagine that out of nowhere an art critic arose who began systematically assessing all the art in the world for quality and then gave each work a numerical score between 50 and 100. Imagine too that his preferences ran towards big beefy compositions over more delicate or nuanced ones, such that he might give a Ruebens a higher score than a Monet for no other reason than that's how he likes paintings to look. Then consider that these scores, determined by a single powerful voice, became the standard by which all art was judged and even set the market price for auctions and purchase of the best pieces. His numerical ratings then started appearing in museums and galleries so people would be able to separate masterpieces from merely good art. So great became his influence that artists all around the world began attempting to create work that would appeal specifically to him...
Sounds ridiculous doesn't it? But that's exactly what's happened to the world of wine over the past 25 years during the ascendancy of Robert Parker. The Emperor of Wine is an attempt to chronicle Parker's rise to become just such an uber-authority on wine quality, a topic arguably no less subjective than what makes great art. And art criticism might be even easier-after all, you don't have to contemplate how it goes with food as part of your analysis!
While there are already a bunch of worthwhile reviews of this book posted here, I feel compelled to add my two "scents", if for no other reason than there was a perfect storm of Parker activity swirling around me on the day I received my copy of The Emperor of Wine. The NY Times accounted for two of the mentions. First, Tony Hendra, formerly of The National Lampoon and an ardent Parker-basher from way back, panned both the book and Parker in the Sunday Times book review section. Then on the same day, The NY Times magazine section ran an appalling article about Enologix, the California company that offers chemical wine analysis and other advice to wineries in an attempt to help them manufacture high Parker scores. That same weekend I received an issue of Decanter and saw that Steven Spurrier was proclaiming the death of the Bordeaux garage wine movement championed by Parker, labeling it a fad that had thankfully run its course. Meanwhile the revered British wine critic Hugh Johnson was hinting that his forthcoming memoirs will finally put Parker in his place. It seemed that Parker was everywhere I turned for 24 hours, so I was looking forward to actually reading the book myself and forming my own opinions.
As anyone who knows anything about wine will tell you, Parker is an incredibly polarizing force in the industry. Sometimes I think the only thing his supporters and detractors have in common is the passionate intensity with which they view him, whether they consider him a God or the Devil Incarnate. I think it's appropriate that I disclose right now that going into my reading of The Emperor of Wine, I fell more into the latter camp. After all, my opinion is already on the record: in my Amazon review of The Accidental Connoisseur (September 2004), I referred to Parker as Lord Voldemort, which is actually a pretty good summary of how the anti-Parkerites feel about him.
What's my particular beef? I really only have one. Our palates simply don't agree. No big deal. That's hardly unusual when you're talking about a subjective question of taste. I first learned about wine in a French restaurant, and my first wine course was taught by none other than Christian Vanneque, the venerable former sommelier of La Tour D'Argent restaurant and a participant in the famous 1976 tasting between California and France that put America on the map as a force to be reckoned with. As a result, my tastes run to more classic, terroir-driven wines that have more balance than the fruit-driven style championed by Parker. Nonetheless, I became a subscriber to The Wine Advocate for several years in the late `80's precisely because he made it all seem simple. But the more I tried his recommendations, the more I realized that we frequently disagreed, and the more I spent on a bottle that I didn't really like the more it soured me. And it really made me unhappy when on occasion he retasted wines I had bought on his recommendations and then he subsequently downgraded them. So I parted ways with Parker in about 1994 and haven't looked back.
About seven years ago I heard Tony Hendra speak at a James Beard Foundation wine tasting that was designed to demonstrate that what Robert Parker claims he does to review and rate wines is physically impossible. This argument is revisited in Hendra's NY Times review and alluded to in The Emperor of Wine. Most responsible scientists believe that no human being possesses the physiological capability of tasting as many wines in a sitting as Parker allegedly does and maintaining the ability to make sharp and accurate assessments. After about 10 wines the average person goes into the equivalent of sensory overload and can no longer make critical distinctions when it comes to taste. How then does Parker make detailed assessments and award pinpoint scores in his famous 100 point system when he tackles 250 wines at a sitting or somewhere between 8-10,000 wines a year? He would literally have to be a freak of nature is the basic assertion, and not many either believe that it is true or want to believe that it could be.
But I digress. The Emperor of Wine is a remarkable book on several fronts. First, and most importantly from your perspective as a potential reader, it contains 300 pages of mind-numbing biographical data that could only be of interest to someone who has already taken a firm position on the debate described above. No one else in his or her right mind could possibly care enough to read the trivial details of Parker's upbringing that made him the world's most important wine critic. There were times in my reading of the book in which I had to hold it at arm's length and stare at it in disbelief-was I reading the life of Winston Churchill or Thomas Jefferson, or Robert Parker? Crikey-who cares what he ate for breakfast when he was a kid or that The Hollywood Reporter once called one of his dogs ugly? On the other hand, the book does a great job of painting a picture of Parker the man: loyal to his family, generous to a fault with his many good friends, proud, charitable, and ever-willing to defend himself when aggrieved by his detractors, all characteristics that played a role in helping him achieve his ultimate status on the world stage.
Here's a Cliff Notes version of The Emperor of Wine. Let's revisit another of my own Amazon reviews, this time Michael Broadbent's Vintage Wines. In that review, I tried to illustrate the difference in Robert Parker's palate and that of Broadbent, the Dean of English Wine Criticism, throwing in the Wine Spectator just to complete the Holy Trinity. If your goal in approaching the Emperor of Wine is to understand what Parker does differently than the wine establishment he so thoroughly eclipsed over the past 25 years, nothing else will crystallize it better. Here is Parker on Chateau Pavie 2000, followed by the Wine Spectator and then Michael Broadbent:
"2000 Chateau Pavie (St.-Emilion): With no shortage of confidence, Gerard Perse feels the 2000 is the greatest Pavie ever produced. Premature you say? Don't discount the proprietor's rhetoric. A blend of 60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, it is a backward, super-concentrated effort displaying an inky purple color, and a thrilling bouquet of minerals, black fruits, vitamins, and toast. It possesses a wealth of fruit, glycerin, and extract as well as high levels of tannin, and a finish that lasts nearly a minute. It will undoubtedly close down after bottling, and not be close to prime time drinking until 2010 or later. Anticipated maturity: 2010-2050." 96-98 Points - Robert M. Parker, Jr.'s, The Wine Advocate, Issue 139
"2000 Chateau Pavie (St.-Emilion): This is a super model of a wine. Super grapey, with red licorice and perfumed aromas. Full-bodied and very tight, with racy tannins and a sleek finish. Best wine of the hillsides of St.-Emilion. Lasts for minutes." 95-100 Points - Wine Spectator, March 30, 2001
"Chateau Pavie, 2000. Very deep, velvety; tobacco-like, sweaty tannins;sweet ,full-bodied, charred and tarry taste. Impressive, but I much prefer the late Jean-Paul Valette's Pavie, which was so much more drinkable. For me. **. For wine competitions and our American cousins, (*****). (Michael Broadbent)"
Everything you need to know about Parker to love or hate him is encapsulated in the Pavie review above: lavish praise for a high alcohol, extracted, fruit-besotted monster, his adjective-driven propulsive writing style, and his absolute confidence in his own opinion. It's not a surprise that he loves it: the wine was "constructed" to appeal to him. The debate over who is right about this wine and its cousins continues rancorously to the present day between the Parkerites and the British wine press, most noticeably Jancis Robinson.
Despite the assertions of the freaks at Enologix, wine appreciation will always be a subjective experience. The issue for us amateurs is to find someone we can trust, because most of us will never get to taste enough wine to be able to make our own judgments on what to buy given the fact that there are more good wines made around the world than ever before and there's a new vintage every year. That's why until Parker burst on the scene, the overwhelming majority of serious wine drinkers established relationships with one or more retailers. The difference is that the retailer could get to know you personally and what you like and don't like and then keep an eye out for you based on your taste, much as a personal shopper would for clothes. But Parker stood the whole system on its head by reducing the complex interchange between you and a trusted intermediary into a take-it-or-leave-it score based on his taste alone. So if your tastes align with his, you're golden. You don't have to think about what to buy ever again. He'll tell you what to drink and why and all you have to do is follow the numbers.. And if you buy wine as an investment, you have no choice but to care what he says because he determines the market.
As far as I'm concerned, once you brush aside the almost embarrassing details about his formative years and personal life, this is a fairly interesting and balanced retelling of how Parker's ascendancy occurred and the influence he has wielded over the worldwide wine industry for the past few decades. One thing it doesn't do is "prove" Parker has a great palate. How do I define such an intangible thing? In my opinion, it can only be an ability to taste and identify wines on a blinded basis. Why? Because-if you don't know what a wine is supposed to taste like, how do you know it's any good? This was Christian Vanneque's mantra and it has always stayed with me. Parker's photographic memory for wines he's tasted is the stuff of legends, but the only example in the entire book of a blind tasting Parker does is during an encounter with the imperious importer Robert Chadderdon, who suckers Parker with two Swiss wines, which Parker promptly butchers and identifies as high class burgundies. While you might think this would be proof that Parker's entire reputation is subject to doubt, I found it aroused great sympathy. Anyone who's ever tried to do a blind tasting knows how hard it is, and I think Chadderdon was an ass to trot out two obscure Swiss wines as some kind of torture test. But like I said, there aren't any counter-balancing vignettes that demonstrate Parker's mastery either.
The bottom line for me as far as this book is concerned is that it didn't change anything in terms of how I view Parker's reviews. By and large I still don't agree with him on what makes an appealing wine. But the book does a fine job of establishing how through a mixture of passion, integrity, showmanship, ambition and commitment, Parker created a new and democratic model for approaching what had hitherto been a brutally intimidating subject, while continuously driving the industry toward higher quality standards from his bully pulpit. And since he seems like he'd be a great friend and a good guy to party with, I'm never going to say anything bad about him again.